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Ultra-Processed Foods: More Today Than Yesterday

Clearly, the public has a very mixed-up approach to ultra-processed foods. On one hand, nutrition experts and foodies will solemnly nod and agree that we all need to eat less of them. But on the other hand, ultra-processed plant-based foods that might induce people to eat less meat are a hot trend of 2021. On top of all that, new data in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tells us Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods than ever before.

As of 2018, ultra-processed foods accounted for 57.0 percent of the calories Americans consumed. That’s an increase from 53.5 percent in 2001.

Data from NHANES

Self-reported data for this analysis came from nine waves of data collection between 2001 and 2018. Based on these reports, researchers used the NOVA classification system to categorize foods according to their degree of processing. They found a consistent upward trend in all demographic groups – with the notable exception of Hispanics. Male or female, black or white, highly educated or not, rich or poor. It made no difference. Everyone is eating more ultra-processed foods.

The authors, led by Filippa Juul, write that their findings have important implications:

The United States currently has no policies related to ultra-processed foods as a group, and processing level is not considered in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Given the increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the United States and accumulating evidence linking these products to chronic diseases, we recommend that policies should be implemented to reduce their consumption, as has been done in several other countries.

It’s Complicated

But the rhetoric of urgency seems out of touch with reality. Some reports suggest the pandemic led people to rely more, not less, on highly processed foods. In addition, we have that huge wave of innovation around substitutes for meat and dairy products. Most all of that will yield more highly processed foods.

Why are people saying one thing and doing the opposite? Because these processed foods are very diverse and they serve useful purposes. In fact, as Linn Steward recently explained here, they can be quite wholesome.

So we don’t expect highly processed foods to fade anytime soon. Perhaps nutrition gurus would do well to evolve their thinking about processed and packaged foods. The current disconnect between theory and practice is unhelpful.

Click here for Juul paper in AJCN, and then here, here, here, and here for further perspective.

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October 27, 2021

2 Responses to “Ultra-Processed Foods: More Today Than Yesterday”

  1. October 27, 2021 at 7:52 am, Al Lewis said:

    Who knew nutrition could be so complicated?

  2. October 27, 2021 at 12:16 pm, David Brown said:

    The concept of ultra processed foods is too nebulous to be of any use in research aimed at figuring out how food choices impact population health. O the other hand, tracking nutrient content could be helpful.

    Currently, almost the whole World believes that food should contain as little saturated fat as possible so as to reduce risk of heart attack. But the research of Vijay P. Singh indicates that saturated fat intake is associated with resistance to complications associated with viral infections. Here is the evidence: